Rabbi Amy Eilberg
It's in Your Heart
There is so much dis-ease in the air. People feeling discouraged and alienated, if not downright despairing. The state of the nation and the world can feel hopelessly broken, and all of that is in addition to the personal challenges in our own lives.
How are we to summon the energy and hopefulness we need to greet the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays? This Torah portion, along with many other gems, brings us the following exquisite piece of inspiration.
“Surely, this mitzvah which I enjoin upon you this day is not too mystifying for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Tradition tells us that “the mitzvah” being described is the work of teshuvah (repentance), the very work of this sacred season. That said, the Torah is speaking directly to the fatigue, self-doubt and skepticism that we may feel this year, as we prepare to enter into the heart of the Days of Awe.
Do I have it in me to do major spiritual work this year?
Do I have the energy to dig deep, recognize ways in which I have fallen short this year, and formulate goals for the year to come?
After such a long time of being focused on just making it through, will my spiritual muscles still serve me?
To such questions, our verses provide a lyrical promise. This work of teshuvah is not beyond you, even now. It is not far away on another plane or inaccessible to normal mortals. It does not require the gifts of the mystics or the skills of the poet. It does not require anything more than you already have: your own good heart and soul. It is available whenever you take a breath, look inward and ask: Am I living the life I want to live? Am I being the person I aspire to be?
It is not distant and inaccessible, the Torah tells, but very close to us: in our mouth and in our heart. In our mouth: We have the words we need to articulate our regrets, to speak our apologies, and to articulate our hopes and goals for the coming year. If the words come from the heart, they will likely do what you hope they will. In our heart: The most important task of this season is to turn to our own hearts. Just tune in and ask: What am I sorry about? And what do I yearn for?
One commentator says that teshuvah is different from other mitzvot, in that one does not need any special equipment, any specific time or place. It depends only on the focus of our heart, and our willingness to speak from that place. Any moment (especially during this sacred season, so rich with spiritual potential) can be a moment of inspiration, of awakening to a possibility that had not been present before.
Strange as it may sound, all of this is also true of the collective teshuvah — the turning and reorientation — we so desperately need for our society. It really does begin with our own hearts. Turn inward and ask: What issue in the broader society speaks to me with particular intensity? What keeps me up at night? What makes my heart ache?
Then look around and see who else is working on the same issue. Their work does not need to be perfect. It does not have to offer a quick and easy path to transformation of the broad social issue.
But if their hearts are in the same place as yours, that is a place to bring your own life force. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just find the place where your heart yearns to help with a social issue, and bring yourself into relationship with others who feel the same way.
Remember — it is not in heaven. Not impossible, not inaccessible. When a society reaches a tipping point at which the hearts of a certain number of the people lean in a certain direction, real change begins to happen.
May the year to come be a time of good health and blessing for all of us, and may it bring us closer to a kinder and more just world, and a healthier planet. Amen.
(First published at https://jweekly.com/2022/09/23/repentance-dont-make-it-a-big-deal-just-look-inward-and-say-whats-right